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Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017: Report and Final Stages [Private Members] (Continued)

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 970 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy David Stanton: Information on David Stanton Zoom on David Stanton] That is genuinely why I am raising it.

Last year we introduced two weeks of paid paternity leave. There has been a very good take-up. We must ensure we are in a position to extend it. I take the point made by Deputies that we have a long way to go in providing for childcare and parental leave. Several years ago I visited Scandinavia where I studied this issue. I met people and saw what they did. Even then they were quite advanced in their thinking. Teachers in childcare services had master's level qualifications in early childcare education and provision. Children learn so much at that age. We, on this side of the House, and I am sure others will agree that in their first year of life children are best placed with their parents. That is where we want to get to and we want to support families and parents in doing so, but we have a long way to go. We propose that we do so incrementally, not in one fell swoop. The unpaid leave is welcome. Some families will not be able to afford to take it, but some will. However, I do not want to move our aim away from the ultimate goal which is paid parental leave in order that people will be able to take time off and have the guarantee that rest assured they will be paid.

There are other issues related to gender equality. Often mothers take time out to mind the children and their careers slide because they, rather than the father, take so much time off work. That is an issue and we want to balance it. There are interesting issues when one begins delving into and discussing the matter. The gender pay gap also comes into play, as well as the need to ensure there is a balance and that fathers have the opportunity to bond with children.

Last week the House discussed the issue of maternity leave for politicians. We are one of the few groups without a right to paternity or maternity leave and it is something we need to address. We had a very interesting debate on it in Private Members' time a number of weeks ago.

I apologise for going over time.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Declan Breathnach): Information on Declan Breathnach Zoom on Declan Breathnach If everyone is happy, we will move on.

  Amendment agreed to.

Deputy David Stanton: Information on David Stanton Zoom on David Stanton I move amendment No. 2:

In page 3, lines 5 and 6, to delete “to extend unpaid parental leave from 18 weeks to 26 weeks; and to provide for related matters”.

  Amendment agreed to.

Deputy David Stanton: Information on David Stanton Zoom on David Stanton I move amendment No. 3:

In page 3, to delete line 12 and substitute the following:
“(a) by inserting the following subsection after subsection (1):
“(1A) The reference in subsection (1) to a period of 18 working weeks shall be construed—
(a) in the year 2019, as a reference to a period of 20 working weeks,

(b) in the year 2020, as a reference to a period of 22 working weeks,

(c) in the year 2021, as a reference to a period of 24 working weeks, and

(d) on and from 1 January 2022, as a reference to a period of 26 working weeks.”,”.

I propose to discuss amendment No. 3 in isolation. As colleagues said, it is a subject of some debate. The purpose of the amendment is to amend the Parental Leave Act 1998 to increase the current 18 week unpaid parental leave entitlement to 26. The Government proposes that the increase in parental leave be phased in at a rate of two additional weeks per year between 2019 and 2022. As I have mentioned, while we are all in favour of providing the upmost support for working parents, we must remain cognisant of the potential impact on employers. As Members will recall, on Committee Stage I invited the views of all stakeholders affected, including employers. IBEC subsequently made a submission to the Department in which it underlined its key concerns, chief among which are the consequences for employers, particularly small and medium employers. The big companies will manage, but they were worried about the administrative and cost burdens for small companies. In the light of the challenges involved in replacing key skills and ensuring alternative arrangements will not result in a loss of productivity or output, IBEC submits that it is vital that any increase be on a phased basis to lessen the impact on employers, especially SMEs.

  Deputies will also appreciate that extending parental leave on a phased basis is not only about supporting the interests of business. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, the Office of the Attorney General has raised the issue of the cumulative burden on employers and the risk of constitutionality.

  The Bill has moved quite quickly. In my time in the House I have rarely seen a Bill move as fast, with the exception of emergency legislation. Unfortunately, there was no consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny, although on Second Stage I suggested strongly that the committee do so. A phasing-in approach, as proposed by the Government, would enhance the Bill's presumption of constitutionality, as it is contended that phasing in the leave over a four year period, starting on 1 January 2019, would be a proportionate approach and not put a disproportionate burden on employers. This approach stems from previous case law where, as Deputies will recall, the Supreme Court found it to be unconstitutional to place a disproportionate burden on employers which would cause "undue hardship". There is, therefore, a precedent.

  As alluded to previously, negotiations on a draft work-life balance directive are still under way at EU level and the Government wishes to highlight the need to ensure that whatever changes are made to domestic legislation will dovetail with the provisions and timeframe for transposing the directive as far as is practicable. Negotiations are ongoing on the directive and we are not yet sure what will emerge. Member states will have three years in which to transpose it into national law; therefore, we are also working at that level on the issue of a work-life balance. Some member states are concerned about the cost; there are, therefore, considerable negotiations taking place on the issue.

  In some ways, the amendment is quite complex and a lot of work went into making it happen. I am curious to hear what colleagues have to say about it.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall Zoom on Róisín Shortall As I cannot agree with the points made by the Minister of State on the amendment, I cannot support it for several reasons. The Minister of State cited the possibility of constitutional difficulties. This is the first time that he has raised that issue. We have been through Second and Committee Stages and it never arose. I am not sure what he is talking about when he refers to a cumulative burden on employers. People will not rush out and take all of next week off or whenever the legislation becomes law. In all likelihood, it is something that will be spread over several years.

We are talking about an extension of eight weeks during a child's life, potentially a 12-year period, and about a parent having an additional entitlement to eight weeks leave. I do not think that is particularly onerous on anybody. It can be a win-win for employers because very often parents, especially women, find juggling children and work too much. Because of the lack of flexibility in they system, women often step out of the workforce, might resign from their job and stay out of the workforce for some time. Employers often invest considerable money in training their staff. They have loyal and responsible staff who do a good job whom they do not want to lose. That is why there are benefits for employers if they are in a position to show that flexibility to workers, recognise the realities of life where their staff are parents and that in the real world parents have children who need care and attention and time. There is no reason it cannot be combined with an active work life. As I said, it happens across Europe where there are far more generous entitlements to leave which mostly is paid.

I just do not buy the argument about undue hardship. I cannot imagine employers heading off to the High Court because a staff member wants to take an occasional few weeks off when their children are on school holidays or when there are other reasons a parent wants a little flexibility. I wonder from where these arguments are coming. The Minister of State is making this overly complex and I think he is bending over backwards to facilitate employers at the expense of employees. He says the ultimate goal is to provide for paid parental leave. Nobody disagrees with that goal and the sooner the Government legislates in that area the better. We will very much welcome it and the Minister of State will receive the full support of the rest of the House.

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